Book It on the Spot--and Save! Part III: A Galapagos Cruise
Sunset at the lookout on Bartolom, Island, and it's business as usual in the Galapagos: Squadrons of blue-footed boobies dive-bomb the Pacific's azure waters, plummeting headfirst in rapid succession in search of an evening meal. An hour ago, our group of seven tourists and a guide watched six stealthy sharks and an eagle ray prowling the surf. Earlier, we clambered over the cinders of a black lava field, then snorkeled off a powdery white beach accompanied by penguins, nosy sea lions, and marine iguanas as wizened as shrunken Godzillas. It's a typical afternoon of a seven-night cruise that will take us to 11 islands. We're on the equator, 600 miles west of Ecuador on mainland South America.
This is budget travel in the Galapagos Islands. Not bad for something that costs you $65 per day, and not too different from the cruises that charge some suckers $300 per day for the same itinerary. That's right: forget about those prices you see at home, many of which start north of $2,000 for a week in the islands before air, which can tack on another $800 to $1,200. With flexibility and gumption, you can do the whole thing--including airfare--from $1,500.
Before you read any further, a warning: if you don't like boats, a Galapagos cruise may not be for you. Because the archipelago is an Ecuadorian national park, the only practical way to tour the islands is on one of about 85 government-licensed vessels, usually on a tour of four to eight days, with an approved guide. And with a few exorbitant exceptions, the boats are designed, well, like boats--for efficiency, not luxury, for 8 to 16 passengers. On the cheapest cruises--which are better termed "tours"--cabins might be cramped and passengers share the head, but in general the crews are friendly and accommodating, the meals hearty, and the living quarters spotless. Fortunately, most evenings you'll be too tired to care that there's no swing band or midnight buffet. This is an active vacation: days begin around 7 A.M. and involve lots of walking, snorkeling, and photographing.
Even for rock-bottom amenities, if you book from home, the lowest-priced tours don't come cheaper than $1,000 for seven nights, without air. Before we flew to Ecuador to seek saner rates, look at what we were quoted for a week on the following boats: the rather basic Cachalote, $1,354 (Kon-Tiki Tours and Travel); the better Santa Cruz, $2,010 including four nights in Quito (Metropolitan Touring); and $2,375 on the fancy Galapagos Explorer II (Lost World Adventures).
Book instead in Quito
Don't pay that! Spending more doesn't buy you greater access to the islands, and the animals don't care how much you shelled out. When boats have unsold spaces, many owners slash prices, so book your cruise in Quito, Ecuador's capital, or in the islands themselves, and you'll get cut-rate berths.
We'll start in Quito, a safer, if slightly more costly, hedge bet (the other alternative is to book your boat in the islands themselves, namely in Puerto Ayora; see below). Ideally, you should set aside at least two weeks for your trip, which will give you eight days of cruising, two days' international transit, and a few days to explore the colonial byways of Quito, which is nestled among the volcanoes of the Andes.
Getting to Quito should be your biggest expense. Discount round-trip airfares from the East Coast run about $600; from the Midwest $600-$700; and from the West Coast $600-$800. (Airfare discounters specializing in flights to Quito include Odyssey Travel at 800/395-5955, Exito at 800/655-4053, and Dan Travel at 800/362-1308.) Often, frequent-flyer mileage can also be a pretty good deal. American Airlines, which flies to Quito from Miami, and Continental Airlines, which flies from Houston, require only 35,000 miles--for less than the 60,000 miles sometimes required to reach South American destinations such as Lima or Sao Paulo.
You'll also have to fly from Quito to Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos, from which the cruises depart. Always keep in mind that the government has a monopoly on flights to Puerto Ayora, which is the islands' central town; you must take a TAME (TAH-may) jet from Quito or Guayaquil. The agency that sells your tour should also arrange your air reservation to Baltra--the airport, in effect, for Puerto Ayora--to coincide with your boat's sailing. From June 15 to August 31 and December 1 to January 15, the set price for foreigners is $385 round-trip, and at all other times, it's $329.
If you plan to find a boat on your own in Puerto Ayora, sans travel agent, you must arrange the flights yourself. You can reserve ahead (call 011-593-2-509/383-4678) but to avoid getting bumped, obtain your first boarding pass (prechequeo) at the TAME office at Avenida Amazonas and Avenida Cristobal Colon. In Puerto Ayora, when you find out when your cruise will end, you can pick up a return pass (Av. Charles Darwin and 12 de Febrero); there's a fee to change a flight once a boarding pass is issued. In addition to airfare, everyone must pay a $100 national park entry fee in cash at Baltra's airport; unmarked $20 bills work best as larger bills are scrutinized with great suspicion.
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